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American Revolution Debate: The Lawfulness of Defensive War

August 23, 2018

The Meeting Between Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens, 1626.  This meeting occurred in Genesis 14.

In the 1700s, many patriot American colonists and clergymen justified their fight for liberty in the American Revolution with Judeo-Christian thought and ideas.  One argument they cited was the justness or lawfulness of defensive war.  They believed that defensive war was just and lawful before God to preserve their lives, liberty, rights, and property.

Clergymen often cited the Bible for examples and explanations to support defensive war and the preservation of their freedoms and rights.  In his 1775 sermon, “Defensive War in a Just Cause Sinless,” early American minister Rev. David Jones of Pennsylvania asserted that the oppressed have a duty to defend their liberties based on the Old Testament.  Jones compared the American Revolution to a number of defensive wars in the Old Testament.  Some of these wars involved…

In one instance, Jones considered Genesis 14 in which Abram, who was later called Abraham, armed himself and his servants to rescue his nephew Lot who had been taken captive by four kings.  The godly Melchizedeck, a high priest of God and a Christ figure, praised Abram’s battle success, saying in Genesis 14:19-20, “‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor or heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’”  “This passage,” observed Jones, “proves not only that this [support for defensive war] was Abram’s belief, but also that Melchizedeck, priest of the most high God and the brightest type of Christ, was fully of the same opinion.  Therefore, it may be admitted as evidence in favor of a defensive war.”  Jones concluded from these examples that…

In his 1775 sermon, “A Self-Defensive War Lawful,” Pastor Rev. John Carmichael of Pennsylvania also believed resistance was justified under certain unavoidable circumstances.  Carmichael reasoned that when Jesus tells His followers to “turn the other cheek” in the New Testament, it is a proverbial expression.  It means that “we should be ready to put up with a good deal of ill-usage before we create disturbance, yes, that we should do anything consistent with our own safety.”  When Jesus teaches us to “love your enemies,” Carmichael further explained, he “can’t possibly [have] meant that we should love them better than ourselves—that we should put it in the enemy’s power to kill us, when we have it in our power to save our own life by killing the enemy.”  Jesus does not intend, he explains, “to forbid us to use lawful and proper means of self-preservation.”  In the case of the American Revolution, observed Carmichael, Americans had born Britain’s abuses patiently, but now they needed to defend their freedoms and way of life.

Americans held strong opinions about revolution against Britain.  Many patriots supported revolution and independence from Britain based on examples from the Bible that supported the defense of one’s life, freedom, rights, property, and way of life.  In fact, the phrase “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” became a motto of the American Revolution.  As a result, many Americans asserted the justness, morality, and necessity of defensive war.  Consequently, many also favored the forming of an American military.  In a sermon on 2 Chronicles 13:12, Rev. William Emerson, chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, expressed, “Our military preparation here for our own defense is not only excusable but justified in the eyes of the impartial world.  Nay, for should we neglect to defend ourselves by military preparation, we never could answer it to God, to our own consciences, or to the rising generations.”

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
3.  The Puritans Identified with the Israelites and Practiced Covenants
4.  Great Awakening Effects:  Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution 
5.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
6.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
7.  The American Revolution was sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
8.  American Revolution Debate:  Submission to Authority
9.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
10.  How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
11.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
12.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
13.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
14.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
15.  American Revolution Debate:  Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
16.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
17.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
18.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 2, Activity 3:  Bible-Based Justification for Revolution, p. 219, 359.  MS-HS.

Bible-Based Justification for Revolution

Purpose/Objective:  Students examine the Bible-based arguments made by Patriot Americans in support of revolution against Britain.  Students learn about the influence of the Bible during the Founding era.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 6.1 to 6.12.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Patriot Revolutionary Chart:
In your own words, explain/describe the following biblical principles or arguments used by many patriot Americans to justify/support the American Revolution.  Students may include the sources/thinkers who promoted each argument.  Provide relevant scripture verse(s) for each argument.  See the “Bible-Based Justification for Revolution” Patriot Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 359.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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